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Surviving Alaska: 15 Things to Know

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A NOLS student passes along helpful tips on surviving mosquitoes, the presence of grizzly bears, the lack of privacy and other perils of the Alaskan backcountry.

Story and photos by Allison Titus

Oct. 17, 2014—The Alaskan backcountry is the ultimate wilderness: rugged, unpredictable and wildly beautiful, it has captured the hearts and dreams of adventurers everywhere for centuries. I was fortunate enough to spend one month of my summer participating in a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course in Alaska. When we weren’t slip 'n' sliding down glaciers, wrestling grizzly bears, riding humpback whales and bagging peaks right and left, my 11 coursemates and I learned some outdoor leadership and technical skills. We became competent backcountry dwellers well versed in pooping etiquette, cowboy coffee brewing and rapid tent set-up. We also emerged as outdoor leaders, learning to read maps, assess risk and even lead the group without instructors.

Alaska is the perfect setting for an outdoor leadership course because of its vast and varied landscape. Not many places have both huge, snowy peaks and protected seas leading out to the Pacific. Not many places boast wildlife such as grizzly bears, moose, marmots and ptarmigans. Not many places have terrain such as tundra, river valleys and glaciers all in the same area. All of these things, and more, are what makes Alaska a uniquely challenging place to learn how to be an outdoor leader.

There are many things that remain the same no matter where you are in the backcountry, be it the Sierra Nevada, the Grand Canyon or even the Himalayas. However, there are also some lessons best learned (and possibly only learned) in Alaska. Here are some pro tips, straight from the Last Frontier itself, for conquering the Alaskan terrain in style.

1. Don’t try to eat food while wearing a mosquito headnet. Yes, you will be wearing a mosquito headnet, a lightweight mesh hat that drapes around your entire face and neck. In Alaska, the mosquito is often referred to as “the state bird.” Yikes. It is also advised to avoid spitting while wearing said headnet.

2. Pick a good bear call. Bears don’t want to run into you any more than you want to run into them, and it helps if you give them fair warning. Some great ideas for bear calls include lyrics from your favorite songs, Harry Potter spells or a classic “YO!”

3. Don't even try to predict the weather. Sure, in California those high, wispy clouds are often indicators of high winds and incoming weather. In Alaska, they could mean anything from an impending storm to just floaters passing through on an otherwise bluebird day. One thing you can be sure of is that it’s always, ALWAYS a good idea to stormproof your camp, because the one day you don’t anchor your tarp down with rocks and put your jacket, boots and trekking poles in your backpack, a violent storm will roll through and scatter your gear to the high heavens.

Read about California wilderness survival in Stoked on Nature .

4. Keep an eye out for moose trails. These well-worn paths are an infinitely better way to travel than struggling through thick aspen bushes that grow well over your head. This type of hell, I mean travel, is known as bushwhacking, and not only is it unbearably slow, but the seemingly neverending maze of bushes can drive you insane.

5. Get used to constant company. Due to strict bear protocols, it is advised to go everywhere with at least three other people in grizzly bear country. This means everyone always knows where everyone else is; for example, you can usually name exactly who is currently pooping and the general direction in which they went to accomplish their business.

6. If you think you are close to a landmark, think again. Alaska is vast and deceiving and everything is farther away than it looks. This phenomenon is known as the Alaska Factor.

7. Name your bear spray. This is guaranteed to maximize the strength and accuracy of its firing power. Some examples include Thor, the Terminator, Old Faithful and Big Al.

8. Topographic lines on an Alaskan map span 100 feet. Compare this to typical maps of the Sierra Nevada, where contour lines span 40 feet. Everything is bigger in Alaska. (See number 6.)

9. Deet, you’ve met your match: Alaskan no-see-ums. These little buggers are unstoppable by spray or net, and can return your face to a pizza-like state that you probably haven’t seen since 7th grade. Read: worse than mosquitoes.

10. There is no such thing as bad weather; there is only bad gear. This is, in fact, a direct quote from the NOLS Alaska headquarters bus driver. If Gore-Tex is your best friend, gaiters are your soulmate and fleece pants are the long-lost uncle you never knew you had.

11. Glacial river crossings? Better than bushwhacking. Two thousand feet of elevation gain in a mile and a half? Still better than bushwhacking. Walking down a boulder field on the side of a mountain? STILL BETTER THAN BUSHWHACKING.

12. If you think you’ve found big rocks for anchoring your tent ... there will most definitely be gusts of winds that will send your rain fly soaring down the side of a mountain and make you question your judgement and life in general.

13. Alaskan thunder sounds shockingly like rockfall because the thunder echoes off the endless mountains. When you hear it from your tent, there is no need to stick your head out in the hail in fear that rocks are cascading down on you; it really is thunder.

14. If you travel to Alaska in the summertime, you will experience one of its popular nicknames firsthand. It truly is the Land of the Midnight Sun from June through early September. Your days are never limited by darkness, although your sleep may become limited by daylight.

15. It’s worth it. Despite grizzly bears, relentless bugs and thick aspen bushes, despite the steep slopes, freezing rivers and large boulder fields, Alaska is worth it. Maybe it’s even more worth it because of these things. In Alaska, you form a relationship with the wild unlike anywhere else; some would describe it as tough love. It’s a relationship born out of both extreme challenge and extreme triumph. Needless to say, it’s for the long term; you will join the legacy of adventurers, dreamers and explorers seduced by the dramatic, beautiful landscape and the wildlife that dwell there. As a great NOLS instructor said, it’s always a beautiful day in Alaska.

Author Allison Titus completed a 30-day backpacking and sea kayaking course in Alaska in Summer 2014. This course involved sea kayaking over 100 miles in the Prince William Sound and backpacking 46 miles in the Chugach Mountain Range accompanied by three instructors and 11 other participants. She is now in her third year as a UCSC student, and is co-editor of UCSC’s Gaia Magazine, an assistant sea kayaking instructor at UCSC Recreation and, last but not least, a Hilltromper intern.

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